The Nats’ four representatives (including rookie outfielder Bryce Harper, who made it as an injury replacement) in this past Tuesday’s All-Star game gave Washington its most players in a midsummer classic since 1959 when Bob Allison, Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew and Camilo Pascual represented the Senators in the games back in that brief era when there were two annual contests.
That Stephen Strasburg, the much-hyped top overall selection in the 2009 draft, and fellow starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez, a 2011 All-Star with the Oakland Athletics, represented Washington this year wasn’t surprising. However before the season started, few would have figured that shortstop Ian Desmond – who had to skip the game because of strained left oblique — would have joined them.
Although he was chosen in the third round of the 2004 draft, Desmond wasn’t a star until his sixth and last year in the minors. He beat out 2008 All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman to start for Washington in 2010 and played well as a rookie, but his batting average, homers and RBI all slid in 2011 while his defense improved. He’s still not ranked among the top half of shortstops in the field, but he has made his share of superb plays this season.
And apparently Desmond’s strong final six weeks at the plate last season were no fluke because he easily leads all shortstops with 17 homers, 51 RBI and a .515 slugging percentage while his .285 average puts him behind only Starlin Castro of the Chicago Cubs and Willie Bloomquist of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Only Hall of Fame lock Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees and Alcides Escobar of the Kansas City Royals are outhitting Desmond by more than 10 points.
Projected over a full season, Desmond would finish with 34 homers and 101 RBI, very impressive production for a shortstop even in an era of such high-powered hitters at the position as Jeter.
While Jeter reached the majors faster than the 26-year-old Desmond did, he didn’t top 10 homers or 78 RBI until his third season despite batting in a power-packed championship lineup. And although Jeter ranks 14th all-time with 3,199 hits, he has never slugged as many as 25 homers and has driven in more than 84 runs just twice with a high of 102.
Desmond’s prowess at the bat is amazing compared to Eddie Brinkman, one of my childhood heroes, who was a typical good-field no-hit shortstop of the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Senators rookie manager Ted Williams coaxed a .266 season from Brinkman in 1969, it was a miracle considering his .188 average over the previous two years.
However despite the usual sad-sack state of Washington baseball, the Senators did boast Hall of Famer Joe Cronin at shortstop from 1930-34, leading them to their third and final American League pennant as their 26-year-old player/manager in 1933 before being traded to the Boston Red Sox for infielder Lyn Lary and the then-staggering $225,000 after the next season.
Three-time All-Star Cecil Travis manned shortstop in Washington from 1936-39 and again in 1941, the season in which he led the majors with 218 hits and only Williams topped his .359 average. That’s the same year that Williams became baseball’s last .400 hitter and Joe DiMaggio compiled his record 56-game hitting streak. Travis missed the next three-plus seasons while serving in World War II and played just two full years after the war before his career ended at 34.
Desmond has a long way to go to match Cronin or Travis in Washington annals, but he can’t be a free agent until 2016 so he should be a Nationals fixture for years to come. And that’s good news for local baseball fans.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin